Monday, August 18, 2014
Cut Spike: An American Scotch in Nebraska
Why can't American distilleries make high quality single malts in the Scotch style? Part of the answer is in our regulations. While Scotch style single malts are aged in used barrels, American malt whiskey, like bourbon and rye, is required to be aged in new, charred oak barrels. The problem is that barley is much less bold than sweet corn or spicy rye, and its flavors tend to be buried by the new wood. Add to that the fact that Scotland (and most other jurisdictions making single malt) require three years of aging whereas the US has no minimum, and you can start to understand why most American malt whiskey tastes nothing like Scotch, even when the producers are trying to mimic it. (Americans could age malt in used barrels and call it "whiskey distilled from malt mash" but that designation somehow seems less appealing than "single malt whiskey.")
Knowing all of this, I was a bit skeptical when K&L spirits buyer David Driscoll told me there was a distillery in Nebraska making single malt whiskey that tasted like Scotch. David is a great guy and one of my favorite retailers, but let's face it, he is a bit excitable. This is a guy who sources some of the best spirits on the market, but his talents are such that he could probably unload Seagram's 7 by the caseload as the latest budget retro-fad. (And if he ever goes into political advertising, watch out!)
A few days later, I received a sample of Cut Spike Single Malt, a two year old whiskey made outside of Omaha. Cut Spike is made from barley that comes from Rahr Malting in Minnesota, one of the largest malting companies in the United States. Like many craft distillers, Cut Spike gets their fermented wash from a brewery, in this case, their sister company, the Lucky Bucket Brewing Company. Their stills are made by Forsythes in Scotland, and they use a variety of casks ranging from lightly to heavily charred.
I've never heard anyone compare Omaha to the Scottish Highlands, but I figured I'd give it a try. Wow! This was by far the best American single malt I'd ever tasted, and the only one that could pass for Scotch. In fact, I certainly would have guessed it was Scotch in a blind tasting. It was fruity and perfumey on the nose with a touch of milk chocolate. The palate was sweet, if a bit thin, with bubblegum which faded to malt and it had a light, fruity finish. The flavor was reminiscent of Balvenie with its light, fruity nose and slight chocolate note. I had no idea how they tamped down on the raw wood notes.
While this was great for an American malt, it wasn't great Scotch. It was too sweet and thin on the palate, so while Cut Spike had successfully made a Scotch like whiskey, it was a decent one, not a great one.
After my initial tasting, I got an email from Driscoll. The bottles had arrived, but they weren't quite the same. Cut Spike had changed their filtration method. He still liked it, but I told him I wasn't able to review a sample that was different than the product being offered, so he kindly sent me a bottle of the new stuff.
Cut Spike Single Malt, Batch 1, 2 years old, 43% abv ($60)
The nose is malty. The palate comes on a bit raw with some alcohol notes, then it turns nicely malty with some floral/perfume notes and some sweetness. The finish is sweet and floral with malt in the background. Overall, it's nicely balanced between sweet and malty notes.
Interestingly, this new batch is a very different from the previous one, though it's of comparable quality. It's less sweet and less thin on the palate, which is an improvement, but it also has some of those raw notes that are typical of young, American whiskeys. Those are the notes that I was surprised were absent from the earlier sample. In this batch, they aren't present in an amount that is off putting, but they are there.
Overall, I think I like this batch better, though unlike the previous sample, I would be unlikely to mistake this for a single malt Scotch. Tasting blind, I might guess that it was a good Scotch single grain whiskey. And both samples are better than any other American malt I've had (excluding the hopped malt whiskeys as that's a whole different category).
I have to hand it to Cut Spike. They are clearly on to something, though they haven't nailed it yet. Much like the two year old Willett Rye, this was good, not great, but it made me very excited to try it at five or ten years old.